Catherine Opie’s photographs examine the markers of human experience, how they individuate and connect us. Throughout her career she has foregrounded communities and spaces on the periphery, providing a forum to reformulate our relationships with places, materials, and bodies. Learn about her work and its reverberations in this episode.
Oral History Interviews Featured
- Ann Cvetkovich, Director, Pauline Jewett Institute of Women's and Gender Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa
Catherine Opie: I’m always wanting to recontextualize the notion of what is iconic by creating not only this utter kind of seduction of beauty of us entering the work, but then a way for us to recontextualize the way that we actually look at things. And I could no longer just make work about community in relationship to ideas of its structure. I had to start making work about my friends.
Elizabeth Botten: Hello, I'm Elizabeth Botten, Reference Specialist and Blog Editor here at the Archives of American Art.
Sarah Bohannan: And I'm Sarah Bohannan, external affairs specialist. Welcome to ARTiculated. This podcast receives support from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
Elizabeth Botten: This episode describes photographs that depict cutting in an S/M context.
Elizabeth Botten: Catherine, or Cathy, Opie is a photographer whose work examines the spaces, places, and symbols that connect us with one another and ourselves. From her emergence in the early 1990s with portraits of butch lesbian SM culture, to her cityscapes and landscapes, to her inventory of the objects in Elizabeth Taylor's house, Opie's photography engages fundamental questions about the histories and human stories made available through images.
Sarah Bohannan: In this episode, we will learn about Opie's navigation of queer and feminist visibility from the 1980s to today, as well as her sense of how documentary photography can enrich our understanding of our world and experiences.
Opie was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1961, where she was precocious in her artistic ventures.
She talks about her first pull to photography during her 2012 oral history with interviewer Hunter Drohojowska-Philip:
Catherine Opie: Yeah, I asked for a camera for my ninth birthday. And I had written a report about Lewis Hine, and I wasn’t a very good student. I didn’t understand the world through words, even though I was an avid reader. Even though I completely was obsessed with books and my, my face was always in a book, I really began to, at an early age, begin to kind of look the world in relationship to—I guess it’s ideas of kind of being represented, or creating representations of that.
So I asked for a camera when I was nine because Lewis Hine’s photographs of the children in the uh, South Carolina mills working just totally affected me when I saw them in my school textbook. A) I kinda couldn’t believe that kids that young were working in these kind of mills. And even though I could read the words in my textbook, it really was the image that became this profound realization for me of just like, what that image did.
Sarah Bohannan: Lewis Hine was a sociologist and photographer whose documentary work throughout the south and midwest bolstered support for child labor laws across the country. Opie's mentors and photography expanded as her family relocated to Northern California. In her oral history, she details her immersion and the SM world of San Francisco and how she came to understand the synthesis of her erotic and photographic lives.
Catherine Opie: No, it’s appealing to me. I’m playing. I’ve become a pretty good player. I’m known as a pretty darn good masochist.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: [Laughs.]
Catherine Opie: I had practice of being a masochist, so—
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: And how did that, psychologically and emotionally—did you question it, or did you just decide to go along with it?
Catherine Opie: Went along with it, but it felt like , again, almost like an alter personality, like I was able to—I’ve done very [well] at compartmentalizing myself in my life. So when I worked at the YMCA, that was Cathy with the kids. When I worked at the Kenmore Residence Club, that was like, the Kenmore Residence Club. And then when I was at school, that was me being the art student.
So, it’s like I’ve always been able to navigate multiple situations at the same time. And there’s a little bit of like, oh I’m just sporting this. It was odd—I don’t know really how to describe it. I was utterly into it, but at the same time, what was always more important to me was my identity as an artist.
So I’m playing and I’m doing it and I’m photographing it privately. I’m photographing for On Our Backs, the lesbian porn magazine, privately, under "Cathy Opie," but not under this Catherine Opie. So it’s all Cathy Opie.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: Well, like that’s such a pseudonym.
Catherine Opie: I know. [They laugh.] I know, right?
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: So funny.
Catherine Opie: Such a pseudonym. I know. So brilliant of me, isn’t it?
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: So you’re publishing these photographs that you’re taking—
Catherine Opie: Lesbian erotica photography. And at this point, like , I’ve tried to get a [00:05:00] job at Fraenkel Gallery, but I didn’t get a job at Fraenkel Gallery. But I would go in there all the time, early on when I was an art student, and ask to look at the Mapplethorpes. So Mapplethorpe is like the X portfolios in my head; the permission to make erotic photographs is there. I just don’t want to do that because I don’t want to fuck up my chance of being a teacher.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: [Laughs.]
Catherine Opie: Because I want to go on to be a professor. That’s my goal. I didn’t even think like, Oh, I’ll end up showing in museums. I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking like, Well, you do all of this, and hopefully maybe I’ll show at a few photo galleries. Maybe if I’m really lucky one day, I can show at Jeffrey Fraenkel. But otherwise, I got to keep this a little bit in the down-low and in the community, because if other people find out, maybe they’ll think I’m really fucked up and I’m weird, and then I can’t like, move forward with my life. That’s what I’m thinking.
Elizabeth Botten: Overcoming the fear of reprisal that haunted so many queer photographers at the time, Opie's radical yet formal engagements with erotica also participated in contemporary feminist debates around the limits of sexual liberation and the force of pornography. We spoke with Ann Cvetkovich, Director of the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women's and Gender Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa about the historic moment in which these works emerged:
Ann Cvetkovich: I have the pleasure of saying to you a bit about the significance of Cathy Opie's work for me, I'll say, first of all that I'm not an art historian, I'm a queer studies scholar, but one who's had a strong interest in visual cultures because of the debates, both within feminism and within queer studies about lesbian visibility as well as representations of sexuality. So I would see Opie's work as coming out of debates within 80s feminisms around the representation of, of women, of sexuality the pornography debates, the pro-sex debates And I see her as part of a trend that includes the embrace of pornography. And she was part of underground sex cultures in San Francisco.
That was one site of documentation for her. She did photography for On Our Backs, which was a really important publication. The began in the eighties through the work of people like Susie bright who felt that it was possible to make a feminist and lesbian pornography. There were also photographers like Nan golden whose work I saw, for example, in the village voice doing fashion shoots who were embracing the.
Techniques of fashion photography and celebrity photography for alternative modes of documentation, for documentation of marginalized people, people who you wouldn't necessarily expect to see photographed in those idioms. And the possibility of being able to take up and take over. Mass culture photography against feminist arguments that that was all sexist and capitalist and to be despised is part of the subversiveness of the work that she and others of her generation have done.
Sarah Bohannan: Opie was consistently aware of the community captured and constellated in her work. She was a member of activist groups, including ACT UP, which coalesced in response to the AIDS crisis and which you can learn more about in season one episode five of ARTiculated. After completing her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts, Opie turned to portraiture and her inner circle. The resulting series, Being and Having, offers 13 closeups of her friends' faces adorned with markers of masculinity like facial hair and tattoos. These pictures were shown in 1991, only a year after Judith Butler's book Gender Trouble began to shift the discourse around gender performance and perception. Opie elaborates on the notions of intimacy and identity that drove the series:
Catherine Opie: That was my first show outside of CalArts, and I was still making work about community. And then friends like Mark Niblock-Smith and a lot of friends in San Francisco and a lot of people in my life were dying. I was part of Queer Nation and ACT UP. And I could [00:10:00] no longer just make work about community in relationship to ideas of its structure. I had to start making work about my friends. And so I started the Portraits.
First, I did Being and Having, which is my friends with fake mustaches on.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: And that has a very interesting relationship—the title has a very interesting implication.
Catherine Opie: To Lacan.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: We’re talking about Jacques Lacan.
Catherine Opie: Yes. And I didn’t title it. Anna Marie Smith, the woman who taught me semiotics, was looking at the work, because every once in a while we would get together and we were still friends and we’d have a little fling because I was still single. And so she said, “You know what”—and I’m like, “I don’t know what to call this.” She goes, “I have a perfect title for you.” And she goes "Being and Having." And then she had me read Lacan, and we talked about it. But that’s how the title came about. It was Anna Marie titling it.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: Having a phallus—the man has a phallus and a woman is being a phallus.
Catherine Opie: Yes.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: Correct?
Catherine Opie: Yes. So Being and Having. And it was perfect because it would fit in on all these different levels, too. Because we could be butch; we could own that identity; we could fake people out with our moustaches, which was what we were doing in LA at that time.
Jerome Caja, who I went to school with at San Francisco Art Institute, who I’ve also photographed in the Portraits series, has the back room. He hosts all of the people at his opening from a bathtub drinking champagne. And I’m like, in the front room, and it’s all of those portraits that I had made in San Francisco over a three-year summer period of time, as well as the portraits in LA—are shown together for the first time and talked about, written about. And then it followed with a solo show at Regen Projects of the work.
And that’s where I show Self-Portrait/Cutting for the first time.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: And that seems to be a photograph that really gets a tremendous amount of attention. It’s reproduced widely.
Catherine Opie: Widely. I had always this fear, by doing this body of work, that I would never be able to get a full-time teaching job. When I started the portrait series, I was like, Well, this is it. Fuck it. It’s too important to me. I have to make it. And I’m always telling students, “Listen, you actually need to not operate from a place of fear, but you always have to operate as an artist, from a place of what is important to you. And that’s what you have to remember first and foremost.”
Elizabeth Botten: Self-Portrait/Cutting became a signature work of Opie's early career. In it, Opie's back is turned to the camera as she faces an ornate emerald-colored studio backdrop; she's bare from the waist up, orange tips decorate her close-cropped dark hair. Her upper back is a freckled canvas for a knife-sketched scene of two stick figures in skirts who hold hands near a simple house under a cloud and two birds; blood congeals with uneven emphasis along the freshly carved lines. Another key work from this series is Self-Portrait/Pervert which features Opie in SM gear with the word "pervert" carved across her chest. She unpacks the staggering reception of these photos in her interview with Hunter Drohojowska-Philp:
Catherine Opie: I did that at a very young age without a lot of support around me. I was starting this body of work that came out of completely an emotional place of feeling that, with the AIDS epidemic and the way that queers were being demonized, especially the leather community being demonized in a certain way, that I utterly had to make these very formal, beautiful portraits of my friends. That history was going to go away. This time period was so very precious. And so I decided to leave all the urban stuff on the back burner and do it, and spent from, basically, 1990, ’91, to ’95 making them. And then starting the Freeways in ’94 and ’95.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: So here you are still somewhat inexperienced—
Catherine Opie: Yes.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: —and the response was enormous, in good and bad ways.
Catherine Opie: Huge.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: How did that affect you as an artist, to have so much critical response when you just weren’t really used to it yet?
Catherine Opie: It was scary. It was hard. It [00:15:00] made me nervous, and I didn’t really enjoy being completely defined as the young leather dyke photographer of my generation. Again, in the same way, identity is very fluid for me. So in the same way that I can be a camp counselor and a leather dyke at the same time, I didn’t want to just be the poster child of the leather community at this time period. I was perfectly happy to be making this work and that it was important and so well received. But the first place [Self-Portrait/] Pervert ever showed was in the 1995 Whitney Biennial.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: And Pervert were—
Catherine Opie: I have "pervert" carved on my chest with needles and a leather mask on. And I make it in San Francisco, in the third summer of the studio I ran.
It’s a very different piece than Self-Portrait/Cutting. It’s a much bolder piece, much harder piece. I was getting extremely upset in relationship to how the leather community was being portrayed. We were coming off the heels of Helms—of Jesse Helms. We were coming off—we were just at the beginning of the Clinton era. We were coming off of just extreme homophobia, and I felt like if my friend Steak tattooed “dyke” on the back of her neck, that I would have “pervert” carved on my chest. And I would become like Holbein [for] Henry VIII; that I would be the warrior. I was going to be the pervert warrior out there for us.
So I made it in relationship to just wanting to be unbelievably brave in relationship to my identity for the leather community and to make a portrait that was both utterly beautiful and tough at the same time. Never wanted it to be horrifying. So many people were so scared of meeting me after that portrait. It was fascinating to me. That’s what really bothered me about it. They had assumed my personality from a picture. All of those assumptions were based upon how I would be.
So interviewers would come and interview me, and then afterwards, they would be like, “You’re so nice.” I’d be like, “Well, why wouldn’t I be nice?” y’know? That was a little unsettling. That was the hard stuff for me. And I think that’s why I switched back to urban work immediately, by doing the Freeways, something quieter, something less personal, something that I knew, a territory that I had been involved in for a long time of looking that I could return to and be held in that quiet place, because [if] I didn’t do that, I felt that I was only going to be one dimensional as an artist. And I wasn’t interested in being a one-dimensional artist.
Sarah Bohannan: We asked Ann Cvetkovich about what it meant for Opie to use photography as a medium for queer women's history.
Ann Cvetkovich: So let's talk a bit about traditions of documentary photography with, with respect to something like lesbian visibility.
So certainly with 70s lesbian feminism there are a lot of photographers the most Probably famous one at this point would be JEB, Joan Biren, but there are a lot of others like her who are not well-known. If you go to the archives, you'll find all kinds of photographers who were just wanting to document the worlds around them, of lesbians who they knew were not being documented by any kind of mainstream media.
It's a way of saying our people are important. Now, in some cases you could say that those photographs fall into the documentary tradition, that might go back to Dorothea Lange et al, but there's also the tradition of the snapshot and there is the tradition of the posed portrait, which is a way of dignifying your subjects.
And what I would suggest is that what you see in these traditions of queer photography, whether they're made by people understanding themselves as artists or understanding themselves as journalists or documentarians, but I would argue mixes across all of those genres. And that uses not just some-- and I think it's a bit of a myth that there's the unvarnished documentary photograph that's not somehow stylized or posed-- so once you acknowledge that, it does make possible different kinds of studio photography. Right? So Opie is really interesting because of the way in which I think she does take her incredible training, you know, and that is evident for example, from your oral history where she's describing the teachers she worked with, cameras that she used, her printing [00:20:00] process that she could, she brings incredible technical skill to the work of creating photographs then of her friends and you know, people who exist in marginalized or subcultural or underground communities that get the same kind of treatment that you might find a famous person getting.
And that I think is the sensibility of lesbian archive is that everybody's important. Everyone deserves to have their portrait taken. How you do that might vary tremendously. And again, Opie is a special case, I think, of a photographer who brings great formal and technical skill and vision to the work of everyday archiving.
Elizabeth Botten: While her prominent early work makes lesbian culture visible, Opie doesn't limit her subject matter or conceptual scope. In her oral history, she talks about being pigeonholed for her self portraits even though her practice has been hugely diverse, and she elaborates on how she sees documentary photography in dialogue with history:
Catherine Opie: No, I don’t think so. I think that so much is hinged around the earlier portraits, or the self-portraits, that people have an enormous amount of assumptions of my personality based on those self-portraits. I think that definitely there’s—part of my personality that exists completely within those self-portraits. They’re titled "self-portraits." But at the same time, they were performing identity in a way that I felt that was really politically important. And so they’re not necessarily like my inner personality of who I am as a person, but I think that a lot of assumptions are based on me because of me being out as being into SM and being part of the queer movement and all of that, enormous amount of assumptions.
Have you ever read a review that didn’t start off by quoting, “In the 1990s, these portraits were made”? So, so much of everything I’ve made throughout my life pivots around that first kind of moment of visibility as an artist. Which, I’m glad I had that visibility. It’s amazing. But I’m not one-dimensional as an artist. I think that other conversations can be made, and I think that people don’t work hard enough, in a certain way, to figure out those—the other kind of dialogues that can be made.
Yes, from—well, Being and Having, 1990, to—I stopped the Portraits in ’95, and I started the Freeways in ’94. That was also because I was commuting to Irvine. So I was on that long commute. And I was looking at freeways. I took five freeways to get to work. I was very aware of them and wanted to photograph them in a way that created the way—I’m really interested in the idea of what is iconic. I’m fascinated by it, I think in the same way my dad collected the Lincoln ferrotypes that are iconic in relationship to kind of a political record.
What do we look at in terms of record, and how do we hold history? The same way that I might look at the Hine picture of the girls in the mills that taught us everything about child labor laws and actually changed it, I’ve always been really interested in the possibility of photography creating a history, and what that does in relationship to kind of, ideas of representation. And also how communities are formed.
And so, in my head, history—history is always the same. But at the same time, I think that documentary, as a place of photography, hadn’t been pushed enough on a conceptual level. So by using Holbein for the portraits of my friends, it created a different context for us to enter the work than just like, photographs of leather community in their bedrooms with their whips hanging around them, which would be utterly what we would think of as the “documentary” documentary mode of photographing that community.
I’m always wanting to recontextualize the notion of what is iconic by creating not only this utter kind of seduction of beauty of us entering the work, but then a way for us to recontextualize the way that we actually look at things. So we could actually look at a pierced and tattooed person at that time period, in 1992, and find it utterly beautiful because I contextualized it that way, instead of them being like, whoa, dangerous and freaky and wrong. We can [00:25:00] look at a freeway and realize that our commute doesn’t have to be so bad, that we can enter the space and create a different kind of vision formula in it. And I think that that’s something that I’ve always done with work, that I’m really interested in doing.
Sarah Bohannan: Opie's photographs provide opportunities to reimagine our relationships with the world and bodies we inhabit. Ann Cvetkovich, Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Carleton University, told us about how these dynamics reflect Opie's broader project:
Ann Cvetkovich: So one of the other really interesting things about Opie's work over time is the oscillation between photographs of people and photographs of places, perhaps, you know, most famously beginning with the Freeways, a series, and then mini-mall series in LA, but also including, for example, the Icehouses and the Surfers for example, so Surfers would be back to people, but it's also about water and space.
For me, this is a brilliant approach to questions of documentation, because one of the other conundrums of queer visibility and specifically lesbian visibility has been the sensationalizing or voyeuristic or spectacularizing representation of different communities. Some photographers have taken the strategy have no representation or we're not going to put people in the picture. And so I think Opie is one of those people who understands that you can document communities through documenting their spaces or documenting their stuff. And that if you want to understand LA for example, the freeways might the best place to go and you don't need to have any people in those photographs for them to be represented. Another example of this from a queer context would be a photographer, who's, I think, of this generationally and in sensibility quite close to Opie is Tammy Rae Carland, who actually is in one of the Domestics portraits.
And Carland has a series called Lesbian Beds where lesbian lies are documented just through the interiority of the sheets and the the books on the bed and other paraphernalia. So I think Opie shares that sensibility as well. I found it very interesting that in her description of her early years, she discusses her father and her grandfather having done work in interior design and construction, and that she always had a real interest in mid-century modern design in textiles in spaces. And so I think you can see that sensibility in her work, but one way in which you can document people again is by documenting places. So that's where I think the landscape, as much as the portrait is a tradition that she's engaging in. And to me that work is profoundly queer across all of its iterations. So in some cases queer documentarian of the way people live does not necessarily mean that you have to represent people who are specifically identified as LGBTQ.
Elizabeth Botten: Icehouses and Surfers, the two series just mentioned, were location-specific projects that Opie undertook in the early 2000s. Shot from the edges of ice fishing clusters in Minnesota, the Icehouse photos lean between water, snow, ice, and blizzard as the vibrant shacks break up the horizon line and water cycle. For Surfers, which came a bit later, Opie researched tidal patterns along the Pacific Coast Highway in California, and the series contains a mix of landscapes in which surfers await the waves and portraits of the surfers back on the beach. Here's how Opie describes the relationship between the two bodies of work:
Catherine Opie: it was a big change for me, because I didn’t do that with Icehouses. And I didn’t do that because I was making Skyways at the same time. But I realized, while I was making Surfers, that I missed making portraits. And also friends were telling me, “Okay, I’m confused by your work because you only make photographs of queer people. So are you trying to say that only queer people exist in the world?” I said, “Actually, I’m not. I’m not at all.” And I had just been missing portraits.
So I decided that the Surfers, in a certain way, were almost too pretty. They were too—they worked really well with the Icehouses, but [00:30:00] Shaun already showed the Icehouses. So I wasn’t going to have my dream room, like I had at the Guggenheim, where they were across from each other. And I needed to ground the work back into a language of documentary.
So for me, making the portraits of the surfers allowed me to bring it back down from just this kind of—insanely beautiful—them as objects. It’s great to think about them as objects, but I also needed to ground them a bit in a language that I feel very identified with, which is a language of documentary.
Sarah Bohannan: Ann Cvetkovich told us about how emboldening it has been to watch artists like Opie find success and receive major accolades, including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Archives of American Art's medal in 2016:
Ann Cvetkovich: Well, it's definitely been so exciting to see her work in mainstream art institutions. You know, I was noting that she was in the 1995 Whitney biennial. I remember seeing Nicole Eisenman's work in that biennial as well. And they were both artists whose work I was familiar with from other smaller gallery shows, but having them, yeah, the Whitney biennial is a big deal.
And particularly to see artists who I identified as part of my world as queer and as lesbian reach that level of visibility themselves and visibility for their subjects was really important because it suggested, again, the possibility of worlds being bridged, right? Subcultural worlds and mainstream world straight worlds and queer worlds mainstream institutions and subcultural ones.
But I see her as circulating within a world that is, that is broader than just that. So for me, it's important that she also circulates in subcultural worlds that are familiar to me, but to see her portraits of, you know, friends in San Francisco, there's the portrait of Steakhouse with the "Dyke" tattooed on the back. There's her own self portraits, the two early ones, both the sketch of the figure drawing of women and the house on her back and then pervert on the front. There's a sort of pride there and it's, it may be linked to questions of shame, to the things that are considered shameful are proudly displayed and proudly displayed on the walls of mainstream institutions.
For me, that felt like, you know, a celebration for all of us like that is lesbian or queer visibility. That is not just about the individuals in the picture, but a collective community being represented. And that took some doing, you know, that took some doing so for me as a scholar student of that work again, not trained as an art historian, but interested in like, what are the visual tools to do that?
What is the nexus of professional training and art school training and subcultural living that will put that over? That's been something that a lot of us on the fringes, you know, we're watching all through the eighties and nineties, like, oh, look at that Calvin Klein ad that looks like it's got queer content; look at Dyke Action Machine, taking the work of advertising and putting queer content into it, like trying to move back and forth between between these worlds of high art, celebrity culture, and subculture is something that I think a lot of us were doing in the eighties and nineties. And then the folks who break through in the way that Opie was able to do, or Nicole Eisenman was able to do was, was really fascinating to watch.
Elizabeth Botten: And while she's made work that speaks to a range of audiences, Opie is less concerned with one-size-fits-all approaches than she is with embracing particularity and equality:
Catherine Opie: No, I don’t, because I think that—I’m not interested in a universality, really. I think that myself—my own political beliefs come up in the work from time to time. But I do believe in finding that other space that we all can enter in together despite our own internal beliefs. Like with the photographs in the early ’90s—we’ll go back to that—how do I end up making really, really pointed work about my community in which, at that point, there wasn’t any of those examples on an aesthetic level to enter? [00:35:00]
I do believe those portraits created a platform for all of a sudden people to be like, Wow, but why am I holding up all of these opinions in relationship to my own ideas about same-sex relationships? And you had to enter it instead from this really formal place of beauty.
So a lot of my navigation is not slamming my own politics down somebody’s throat, but it’s actually using aesthetics in relationship to creating representations that we can all possibly enter it in different ways. Not trying to create a universal language, but I think that there’s something really different between universality and equality. And I think I’m more interested in ideas of equality. That I want to be treated the same, in a certain way. And so therefore, as an artist, I still want to have that equality happen within the work somehow.
Elizabeth Botten: Ann Cvetkovich told us about how she sees the trajectory of Opie's work in the wake of queer culture finding its way into the mainstream in the 21st century:
Ann Cvetkovich: Looking back at those photographs now, too in the wake of all that has happened in gender politics since the nineties and the pathway that's been cleared in part through projects like Opie's or the communities that she was part of in the nineties that have made different kinds of gender, non binary, gender non-normative trans identities possible, we see the way in which the play for the photographic image, whether it's wearing mustaches or wigs or showing your tattoos, or showing your clothing, that there's so many different ways in which queers have played with portraiture. You know, we see it in the selfie, for example and, and Opie belongs to those vernacular traditions. I don't think that diminishes the p ower of her work in any way, but just situates what she's doing as a fine art photographer in relation to a set of everyday and vernacular genres that people have used in order to create identities for themselves and styles of self presentation.
Sarah Bohannan: At stake in Opie's work is the capacity of images to transform our relationships internally and externally. In her 2012 oral history, she expresses the power of documentary photography and why she returns to it again and again in her work:
Catherine Opie: Well, I think that community, again, is like something that we all are seeking. I think that we seek it in this very interesting way. And I think that we are literally—as a species, we’re also pack animals to a certain extent. We like a pack. We like to have people around us. We want to have people around us that are thinking the same way, that have opinions.
Humans want to share information. They want to share ideas. They want to inspire. They want to invent. We’re a very, very social species, for the most part. Some people aren’t. Some people are very introverted, but the extraverts are reaching out constantly looking, thinking. Look at Apple computers, in a certain way, how they figured out how to engage a public. They engaged a public through these incredible devices that they invented that changed our way of living.
I mean, art is a little bit the same way—as well as creating dialogue. So really, my ideas around community is the idea of creating dialogue. That it’s not only about friends and having a place that you can land, but on a larger level, it’s about communicating to a certain extent. And communicating becomes part of community that you are able to reach out and reach over those lines and create discourses.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp: Is that why you think you go back over and over again to documentary photography?
Catherine Opie: Yes, I think so. Documentary, to me, is the place that we hold history. And I think that from a place where I was taught and where I went through school and so forth, that any—even from my childhood, my dad, in terms of his political campaign collection and things like that—that history has always been kind of the driving force in relationship to my own communication within work. And that documentary is the [00:40:00] easiest place to begin to create those dialogues, by forming it around that.
Michelle Herman: For show notes, works cited, and additional resources visit aaa.si.edu/articulated.
This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman from the Archives of American Art.
It was edited by the team at Better Lemon Creative Audio
Our music comes from Sound and Smoke composed by Viet Cuong and performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble with Harlan Parker conducting.
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